Providence getting ready to launch fire academy

Photo: WPRI / Corey Welch

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – As retirements in the Providence fire department continue to pile up, the Elorza administration is finally moving forward with a new training academy.

Although a timeline for the actual academy hasn’t been established, the city will begin accepting applications in the coming weeks, according to Evan England, a spokesman for the mayor.

It is unlikely recruits will begin training before the fiscal year ends June 30, meaning the $1.6-million the city set aside for a 52-member academy in its current budget will be used to cover other expenses, like significant overages in department overtime.

As it stands now, there are 385 active members of the fire department, according to Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare. (Only 334 employees are eligible to work on one of three platoons.) Pare said there are 46 firefighters currently on some form of leave, which generally means they are classified as injured on duty or on light duty.

The announcement of a new academy comes months after virtually everyone around Elorza – including the City Council and the firefighters’ union – began calling for a new academy. Union President Paul Doughty told WPRI.com approximately 100 firefighters have retired since Jan. 1. 2015.

At the same time, the city and the firefighters remain in a bitter legal dispute stemming from the administration’s decision to restructure the department from four fire platoons to three on Aug. 2.

The change, which required firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week across four platoons to an average of 56 hours on three platoons, was designed to reduce spending on callback overtime, but retirements, resignations and injuries have led to no savings in the current fiscal year.

A Superior Court judge ordered the two sides to arbitration to determine how much the firefighters should earn for the 14-hour increase to their average work week. When he made the change, Elorza gave the firefighters an 8% pay increase, but officials in his office have acknowledged the city will likely have to pay more when everything is settled.

Lawyers for the city have asked the state Supreme Court to rule that the two sides never should have been sent to grievance arbitration because the city has a management right to restructure the fire department however it sees fit. The union has argued that its existing contract with the city entitles firefighters to be paid time-and-a-half after working an average of 42 hours in a week.

By March 2017, 40% of the city firefighters will have at least 25 years of service and will be eligible to retire, according to a report prepared for the City Council by internal auditor Matt Clarkin earlier this year. Clarkin said 31% of the current fire department is at least 50 years old, well above the national average.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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